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Supreme Court affirms second-degree murder charge, life in prison

April 5, 2016

The Indiana Supreme Court said admission of an autopsy report and testimony by a pathologist who did not complete the report was not a violation of a man’s Sixth Amendment right to cross-examination and thus affirmed the trial court’s conviction of second-degree murder.

Michael Ackerman was convicted in 2014 of second-degree murder after a sister of the murder victim came forward as a witness 36 years after the incident took place. She testified that she saw Ackerman shake her younger brother after he said he was going to give him a bath.

During the bench trial, the state called Dean Hawley to testify regarding an opinion of the victim’s death based upon the autopsy report given in 1977. Hawley said the cause of death was blunt force injuries of the head, chest and abdomen. No objections were made at the time. Ackerman was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, which he appealed.

The Indiana Court of Appeals determined the Supreme Court had jurisdiction under Indiana Appellate Rule 6, and the Supreme Court took the case.

Ackerman’s appeal contained three issues. He said the admission of the autopsy report prepared by the doctor, who is now deceased, violated his Sixth Amendment rights, because he had no way to cross-examine him. Also, he said the delay in bringing the chargers violated his due process rights. Finally, he argued the trial court erred during sentencing, saying 1977 sentencing statutes were controlling, not current statutes as the court claimed.

Justice Steven David wrote the decision in the case and said the autopsy report submitted was non-testimonial, and because of that, Ackerman’s Sixth Amendment rights were not violated. The report only confirmed that the doctor performed the autopsy, not the accuracy of its conclusions or descriptions. There were no references aiding law enforcement, and the report is not labeled as a report, but as an anatomical diagnosis. “Significantly, this seems to best capture what an autopsy report truly is, a medical diagnosis, not a formal attestation of fact ‘bearing indicia of solemnity,’” David wrote, citing the United States Supreme Court decision Williams v. Illinois, 132 S Ct. 2221, 2229-33 (2012).

The court also said Ackerman’s due process rights were not violated. David said there is no statute of limitation in these types of cases for exactly this purpose. Also, delay in the prosecution of the case can hurt the prosecution and defense, as both have to build their cases from the same evidence.

Finally, the Supreme Court said while the trial court erred in its application of present day sentencing guidelines, the error was harmless because the court believes the trial court would have imposed the same sentence. David wrote the nature of the offense, beating a very young child, supported the ruling.

The case is Michael Ackerman v. State of Indiana, 49S00-1409-CR-770.


 

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